Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 10, 2021
Hebrews 4:12-16 Commentary
Even adults are, in some ways, masters of hiding. We generally no longer hide in closets or behind furniture as we did when we played “Hide and Seek” as children. Yet we still manage to keep a lot of things hidden from each other – and, sometimes, even ourselves.
So those who proclaim Hebrews 4 might invite our hearers to imagine being unable to keep anything hidden from the people around us. What if the people with whom we worked and lived knew everything we thought about them? What if we were unable to keep any of our deepest secrets and greatest flaws hidden from other people?
What’s more, what if knew ourselves so completely that we knew even our darkest inner selves? And what, perhaps most terrifying of all, if God knew us better than we knew ourselves and each other? What, quite simply, if nothing was hidden from God?
I recently joined a dear friend in watching (online) New York’s Central Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah service. It was a stirring service full of beautiful singing and Scripture reading. Were we familiar with Hebrew, some Christians could sing many of the songs worshipers sang in Central Synagogue that morning.
The service was soaked in and reflected the majesty and holiness of God. In fact, one of the most lasting impressions the Rosh Hashana service left on me was its deep sense of God’s anger with human sin and rebellion. It left me in some ways longing for a word of God’s grace and mercy.
One section of the Central Synagogue’s machzor, its book of prayers for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, left a particularly indelible impression on me. From it the cantor sang, “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, both awesome and full of dread.” To which worshipers responded: “We are in awe and filled with dread.”
I thought about that response as I studied this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After all, some resonance exists between that prayer and the Preacher’s assertion that lies at the heart of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (13).
Nothing is hidden from God’s sight?! Everything is uncovered before God’s eyes?! What, then, is to keep even Christians from being in perpetual awe and filled with dread? Who could live, much less die, knowing that we can’t hide anything from God?
The role that Hebrews 4 suggests God’s Word plays in all this may even deepen our sense of dread. Jesus Christ’s friends tend to think of the Scriptures as our only infallible rule for faith and life that comforts and strengthens, as well as blesses and encourages us. We think of reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures as a means by which we open ourselves to God gently preparing us to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
But here comes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with its insistence that “the word of God,” of which the Scriptures are one component, is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (12). It, in fact, “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
That verse makes me think of one of my favorite restaurant’s servers removing from their ovens whole roasted chickens. Their sharp cleavers slice through those chickens’ joints and marrow as though they were just warm sticks of butter. I involuntarily almost jump each time I hear their cleavers fall, wondering if it caught any misplaced fingers in their lethal path.
Hebrews 4:12-16 suggests that something like that happens whenever God’s people open God’s Word. We hear God’s call to us to confess our sins and whack! God’s Word slices through us like a butcher’s meat cleaver or surgeon’s scalpel.
We’d hoped we might slip by with just a few devout words about the white lies we’ve told or the gossip we’ve spread this week. But whack! God’s Word exposes what we thought we could keep hidden from each other and perhaps even God. God’s Word slices right through what we’d assumed we could keep “hidden.”
Even those who proclaim Hebrews 4 probably know what it’s like to go to church, hoping for a quiet hour but, instead, experiencing a loud word of condemnation. Its proclaimers may even have written a lesson or message on a Scripture and felt the icy steel of the blade that is God’s Word slicing right through us. It’s enough to make even the most faithful Scripture reader tremble to open, read and study the Bible.
Those who read this Sermon Commentary likely haven’t murdered, abused, or even deliberately injured anyone in the past few weeks. We probably haven’t started or extended wars. Most of our sins are, in fact, likely so private that no one even knows about them.
Yet when God’s people encounter God’s Word, it has an amazing way of exposing even private sins. It ruthlessly exposes the wrongs we assume we can keep covered up. And it leaves us feeling vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless.
God’s Word sometimes makes God’s adopted children want to find someplace to hide. But Hebrews’ author insists no place to hide exists. So what hope do those whose sins have so soiled us have? Must God’s adopted children live in the kind of perpetual awe and dread about which our Jewish neighbors sang just a few weeks ago? Does our hope lie, with them, in our trust that our “repentance, prayer” and deeds of mercy will somehow temper God’s judgment?
Hebrews 4 insists that while God’s people can’t hide any of those sins from God, God remains amazingly merciful. Though God knows about and exposes even the sins we keep hidden from each other, this Sunday’s Lesson reminds Jesus Christ’s friends that God remains startlingly gracious.
There is, to begin with, great grace in God’s refusal to allow God’s adopted sons and daughters to continue to sin against God and each other. God uses God’s Word to mercifully disrupt our sometimes deeply engrained patterns of hurting each other by uncovering even our secret sins. God graciously tries to protect the people around us by exposing the ways we hurt them by what we say and do.
Yet God doesn’t just do this to graciously protect our neighbors. As our text reminds us, God also exposes our sins in order to graciously heal us. God shows God’s children our sin so that God may also show us its solution. God graciously gives us a “faith” to which we can “hold firmly” (14), even when we have nothing else to which our sinful selves can cling.
That faith desperately clings to the Jesus who went through what his adoptive siblings endure every day. The faith with which God graces God’s beloved people desperately clings to the One who experienced all of the kinds of temptations we can experience. That faith desperately clings to the One who endured what we endure, yet resisted every temptation.
After all, while Jesus was like us in every way except that he was “without sin” (15), he was also unique. While he was fully human, he was also “the Son of God” (14). So Jesus was both willing and able to obey God perfectly. Jesus satisfied God’s demands of perfection for our sakes. Jesus has returned to the heavenly realm and is now somehow seated at God’s right hand.
And because Jesus Christ, “our great high priest” (14) obeyed God perfectly, God doesn’t leave us exposed. God’s dearly beloved people don’t have to fear the slicing power of the blade that is God’s Word. Christians don’t have to stay silent when God invites us to confess our sins. We don’t have to try to hide our sins from God. God’s adopted sons and daughters can confess even the sins that God’s razor-sharp Word has laid open because we know that God forgives us, for Jesus’ sake.
We know that we must confess our sins to God. However, we also know that, for Jesus’ sake, God longs to show us God’s amazing grace. On top of all that, God’s people know that the ascended Christ, the Son of God somehow intercedes for us before his and our Father. In a way we can’t fully comprehend, Hebrews 4 invites us to imagine that each time God’s children sin, the ascended Christ steps before the Father to say something like, “Remember that this is one for whom I lived, died and rose again from the dead. Forgive him (or her) … for my sake.”
In the second church that I pastored, I thoughtlessly neglected a couple that was physically and spiritually needy. The woman was enduring agonizing medical problems that required lengthy and often painful hospitalization. Over a period of about a month I called them only once and never visited them.
The longer I avoided these dear Christians whom I’ll call Rob and Lisa, the more I dreaded visiting them. Yet I knew that I had to go to and admit my sin to this precious Christian brother and sister.
When I eventually went to them, the husband rightly scolded me, exposing my sin of neglect. Then, however, the husband and wife extended to me the undeserved salve of mercy and grace. Once they’d exposed my sin of neglect, they graciously covered me with their (and God’s) forgiveness.
I later realized that I didn’t go to Rob and Lisa just because I knew that I needed to confess my sin against them and offer them pastoral care. I also went to them because I knew they loved me. While I expected them to scold me, I hoped they’d also graciously forgive me.
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